How to approach problem-solving?
Seth Campbell is Head of Innovation at Etch Horizon. With over 12 years of experience delivering innovation programmes, Seth leads strategies for clients looking to transform their ecosystems, services, products and pipeline processes. He has worked with brands such as Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Virgin, and Hargreaves Lansdown and high growth start-ups like Receipt Bank.
As part of the Etch Horizon team, Seth brings a wealth of experience to organisations looking to innovate and grow. Problem-solving forms an integral part of this process, in which many organisations find themselves either tactically, or strategically considering. This is a three-part Q&A; in part one we caught up with Seth to better understand why businesses should be thinking in terms of problems and not solutions. In part two we begin to understand the pros and cons of particular problem-solving approaches.
By way of recap, what are some of the different approaches to problem-solving?
So, there are several approaches depending on the type of problem or perspective. For example, there’s a traditional strategy consultancy approach. Then there’s your design thinking approach, born out of human-centred design. And recently, there’s been increased attention to a system design approach, based on systems theory and intersecting with design thinking (for example, the Design Council recently updated the famous Double Diamond model to be more systems-focused). Each method has its pros and cons, and you don’t necessarily use one method over another. At Etch Horizon, we blend approaches.
Let’s start by explaining a bit about the strategy consultancy approach…
Traditional strategy consultancy problem-solving can be thought of as logical and systematic. A key concept is ‘what are you solving for?’ The process starts with a hypothesis and decomposing problems into constituent parts. Analysis of each part can be performed to find relevant evidence. Then this can be synthesised, and the narrative can be flipped around to start with the conclusions before unpacking the supporting data. It’s a very structured approach and is focused on what would provide the most value to efficiently support a hypothesis and course of action – the 80/20 Pareto principle. It’s based on what you can see in retrospective data – even if using predictive modelling – in terms of metrics that support a narrative. The social side here is about the organisational stakeholder audience and framing the problems and recommendations in relevant terms.
Classic 20th-century management theory generally builds on an industrial-mechanistic world view, looking at solving complicated problems with a mechanical inputs-outputs metaphor.
This approach increasingly needs to be evaluated alongside other practices and metaphor, for example, to deeply explore the ‘why’ at the end-user level to identify more radical innovations, to probe more complex or chaotic situations, and to deploy interventions and experiments that produce new executional data to learn from.
So how does design thinking work?
Design thinking looks at problems from a perspective of empathy – understanding people’s experiences, struggles and motivations. Being in the environment of the problem. The focus is more on the rich context and “thick data”. What is the lived experience like? It looks at what problems exist from the user’s perspective, then goes through creative processes to come up with ideas that can be prototyped to generate new data, test and learn from. The emphasis is on learning through prospective interventions, and the ethos is a collaborative approach. Rather than solving for, solving with.
This brings in processes like ethnographic research to really get under the skin of the people that you think you might be able to help. You might look at this approach as user>out, rather than top>down. Creating new data, rather than analysing retrospective data – although even better is when these can be integrated to work together.
“How might we” (HMW) questions are a sticky idea born out of design thinking. HMWs are a way of reframing a challenge as an opportunity to create a launchpad of ideas. It’s aspirational and open-ended. Used in the right context they can be helpful as a platform to frame design work.
But the Ethnographer Tricia Wang makes the point that HMWs can be too ‘we’-centric. There is a risk of self-interest from the business or the owner of the problem and can ignore broader members affected.
So design thinking has shortcomings as well. It can over-index on the humans that you're designing for and can under-index on the study of others affected and the wider environment. That means you can be helping one group but have a knock-on problem creation for other stakeholders, and that of course carries into designing for environmental sustainability and policy design too.
How does a systems design approach work?
There is growing support for a more systemic design approach to problem-solving. As we become ever more aware of our interconnected world, the impact one action has on another, and the connections we have within and across organisations and ecosystems, this kind of approach is becoming more critical to all businesses.
System Design focuses more on identifying the interactions and types (e.g., power, value, influence), leverage points and consequences across different parties. Looking at the whole picture and with concern for the system. For example, looking at suppliers, supply chains and different actors across different levels, you might have different types of beneficiaries or those who may lose out, whose behaviours can affect each other.
“One’s persons trash is another person’s treasure.”
The by-products of one business could be the inputs of another, and goals and resources are interconnected. This can be useful when thinking about creating regenerative, sustainable organisations that collaborate and operate within complex ecosystems.
System Design allows you to see opportunities for innovation at the intersection of different actors, processes and services.
A challenge with System Design approaches is it can take time to build up this picture, and you must be clear about the boundaries of the system you are trying to map. You need to avoid ‘analysis paralysis’ and continually prioritise and test interventions that could create effective transformations, leveraging rapid innovation processes to make sure you are translating insights and tests into value that can be scaled.
“Innovation is most powerful when it’s activated by collaboration between unlikely partners, coupled with investment dollars, marketing know-how and determination. Now is the time for bold solutions. Incremental change won’t get us where we need to go. And it certainly won’t get us all there fast enough. Nor at a scale that makes a difference. We are moving from an era of open innovation to one of systems innovation.”
Nike Inc. President and CEO Mark Parker
James Perrin was talking to Seth Campbell, Head of Innovation, at Etch Horizon – a future-focused consultancy with an ecosystem-focused approach to problem-solving.
In the final part of our Q&A with Seth, we will explore a system design approach in more detail, specifically looking at the blend between design thinking and systems theory. And provide readers with some practical problem-solving takeaways.
For organisations looking to problem-solve at speed, Etch Horizon’s Starter For Twenty model helps businesses to develop and rapidly test new propositions, assess value-capture potential, explore your route to market, and de-risk further investments.